Slate "Chatterbox" columnist Timothy Noah was online at Washingtonpost.com on April 17 to chat about the Democrats' relationship with the white working class. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Timothy Noah: Hello, Timothy Noah here. I'm a senior writer for Slate magazine. I write a column called "Chatterbox." A few days ago I used the occasion of Obama's now-famous "bitter" remark concerning small-town Pennsylvanians to review the literature on how the Democratic party is faring with white working class voters.
Bethesda, Md.: Perhaps candidates should expand their base of advisors to include lower-level ones working within their own campaigns. Surely they all have people like me who currently straddle both worlds—who grew up working-class in a small Pennsylvania coal-mining town and then went on to college, graduate school and life in Washington—who could have told them, over coffee for an hour, how difficult it is for one world ("elites" and "working class") to understand the other. I have found each group to be equally intolerant of the other based on nothing more than obvious stereotypes, and for those of us caught in the middle it can be exhausting.
Timothy Noah: I agree. There is quite a lot of mutual misunderstanding between the upper middle class and the working class. Reviewing what's been said about the white working class and the Democrats, I realized that there's even a lot of disagreement about who the working class IS.
New Orleans: As a working-class gal who knows the areas of "Pennsyltucky" like the back of her hand, I have to say that Obama was pretty well on target in my experience. Have you read Deer Hunting With Jesus by Joe Bageant, which provides a great illustration of just how this situation has developed and what can be done about it?
Timothy Noah: I have not. I wish I'd heard about it before I wrote my column on this topic!
Portland, Ore.: Mr. Noah, please explain the media fixation on Obama's "bitter" comment. Folks in my neighborhood are working-class, professional or retired. Everyone of them is bitter after nearly eight years of the Bush nightmare. How about some reality instead of pundit porn?
Timothy Noah: I must agree with you that the media is overplaying the story. Possibly it's an overzealous attempt to dispute claims that the press is pro-Obama. I see that Tom Shales had some harsh words in today's Post about Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos hammering away about it at last night's debate.
Woburn, Mass.: Filing early—the problem isn't that rich people can't "feel the pain" of the middle class. I think most people don't care if you're worth $10,000, $10 million or $100 million—if you are patronizing, you clearly don't feel our pain. Game over. To the What's the Matter With Kansas? problem—Republicans may not govern in a way aligned with middle-class economic values (necessarily), but they are at least less likely to be on tape patronizing the middle class.
Timothy Noah: What's the Matter With Kansas? is a book by Thomas Frank that argues that "values issues" are driving the white working class into the arms of the Republicans. It appears to have influenced Obama's thinking on this matter, though I have no idea whether Frank would condone Obama's particular remark, and Obama has not to my knowledge said whether he's read the book. One beneficial result of Obama's remark is that it's gotten people looking at this question—are former Democrats rallying to the Republican party because of social issues? Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Princeton, has challenged Frank's thesis and has an op-ed in today's New York Times about it. He says that the voters most influenced by social issues aren't the white working class, but the wealthy. Frank has a response to similar criticism Bartels made earlier posted online.
Clifton, Va.: Lefties: define working-class? Is it based on job or income level? Many tradesman plumbers, electricians, carpenters and auto techs make more than $100,000 a year. When you take your Lexus into the dealer, the tech gets half the labor rate, and the typical tech bills 45-50 hours a week with ease.
Timothy Noah: That's the crucial question. Bartels defines it as anyone whose family income is $60,000 or less. The trouble with that, many people (including Frank) argue, is that you end up including students, retirees, stay-at-home moms, and all sorts of other people who really are upper-middle class folks who have left the work force for one reason or another. Also, some argue, it excludes people who make more than $60,000 but nonetheless conform to what we think of as working class, and see themselves that way.
Rochester, N.Y.: It's absurd to be having this debate without discussing the nefarious role of the media in all of this. How did it get to the point where people making $5 million to $10 million dollars a year—I'm referring to Matthews, Russert and Williams—spend their time calling the son of a Luo tribesmen an "elitist." Is it time just to give up on our media, and thus our democracy?
Timothy Noah: Great point. Though the Luo tribesman went to Harvard. In the United States, class questions get really complicated really fast.
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